04 September 2010
Of Urban Playgrounds and Escaping the Heat: Lessons from an Empty Convention Center
Every Thursday afternoon, my wife Stefani teaches piano lessons in our house and I take my 20 month-old daughter Bella out for a little Daddy-Daughter adventuring.
Most Thursdays find us looking to discover a previously unknown local park and trying to find the best playgrounds. We occasionally hang at the mall (where we eat frozen yogurt) or take a quick pass at the Zoo, but we generally are busying ourselves with slides and swings and all things playground.
I try to stay in the city, the closer to the core the better. As a lover of the city and urbanity, I have some unquenchable urge to pass that love along to my first-born.
This last week, we went to play at Hemisfair Park in downtown San Antonio. The site of the 1968 World's Fair is not exactly buzzing with activity these days. Difficult to access and strangely isolated in the urban core, the park is a quiet spot amidst the bustle of downtown.
Being that we live in South Texas (in late August), 30 minutes on the playground at the park left both Bella and me drenched in sweat. Looking for a nearby spot to soak up some air-conditioning and cool off my child, we ducked into the Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center, a 1.3 million square foot facility that I figured could loan us some of that space for a few minutes.
We strolled through its pristine halls, eerily quiet during a rare lull in the convention season. We rode the escalators and found ourselves on the picturesque bridge that overlooks the famous River Walk.
I got Bella a cup of water and some fruit snacks from her diaper bag and set her loose. Soon, we were joined by another refugee, another soul seeking some relief from the relentless late-summer sun.
This woman looked to be in her late 40s. She was a heavyset African-American woman with ill-fitting, dity clothes and several worn bags that seemed to carry her life. She was surely homeless.
The woman sat a few seats down from me and Bella, took off her hat and began fanning herself. Bella, albeit cautiously, approached her and waved shyly. Bella had that childlike look in her eyes that we all know well...eyebrows raised inquisitively..."Wanna be friends?"
The woman, disarmed, smiled warmly and waved back. Her beauty came forth in a burst and it became obvious that while a life of distress could take its toll on her flesh, it could not dilute the purity of joy that radiated from her smile.
I began digging in Bella's diaper bag, looking for something that we could offer the woman. Peanut-butter crackers were located and I began to urge Bella to share. I urged her to walk the 15-20 feet to the woman (without me) so that the woman could have the crackers.
Bella's heart seemed resolute that the idea was a good one, but her will to move could not convince her legs to cooperate. As such, I decided to hold her hand, being sure that she would still be the deliverer of the goods.
We walked slowly over to the woman, to whom I explained that I was trying to teach my daughter what it means to love others and share our blessings. She nodded, humbly willing to accept our gift so I could train my child.
On one knee, I asked Bella to share. She looked hesitant. The woman then addressed her directly.
"Would you like to share with me?"
Slowly, beautifully, Bella smiled and extended her hand. She laid the crackers in the worn woman's palm and turned into my chest, seeking security and reinforcement. The woman warmly thanked Bella for sharing and then I did the same.
As we walked back to the area where we were sitting in the great hall, Bella released my hand, and ran in a full sprint away from me. She then stopped abruptly, turned and smiled at me. Proud of herself and her accomplishment of sharing, she seemed liberated by the experience. She was, all of the sudden, more independent and vivacious. She was riding some unseen rush of altruism, some high of approval.
The woman, either slightly humiliated at being an object lesson or sufficiently cooled for the moment, deposited her crackers in one of her bags and slowly walked by us and out the door. Bella stood tall, smiling and waving at her new friend.
I made the short drive home that day under a wave of emotions. I felt resolute that my child would know the least of these. I felt so proud at her heart of compassion for those the world leaves behind. And I felt immediately sentimental at the slow passing of time and the way that these memories will soon fade. I hope that the lessons, for both me and Bella, will linger much longer.